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Play It Again, Putzi

By Ernest B. Furgurson
11/17/2017 • MHQ Magazine

A piano-playing Nazi official charmed Hitler, then betrayed him to the United States.

During the height of World War II, a longtime intimate of Adolf Hitler lived as a pampered prisoner on a Virginia plantation eight miles from the White House. A gifted pianist and composer, Putzi Hanfstaengl had for years charmed his friend with the music of German composer Richard Wagner. The two had been so close that the führer was the godfather to his son. Once Hanfstaengl even told Hitler his mustache was ugly—and got away with it.

Eventually, however, rivals for the führer’s favor grew jealous and tried to do away with Putzi. He fled Germany, turned against Hitler, and spent more than two years as a U.S. intelligence source and a unique instrument of psychological warfare against the Third Reich. Almost daily, he sent President Franklin Roosevelt secret reports and analyses of Hitler’s speeches, strategies, diet, and sexual proclivities, supplying the White House with unmatched insight into the mind of the archenemy.

Born in Munich, Ernst Franz Sedgwick “Putzi” Hanfstaengl was descended from German nobility. A governess gave him the nickname, which means “little fellow,” and he carried it with him even as he grew to a height of 6 foot 4. His father was a rich Munich art publisher; his mother was from a prominent New England family whose lineage included Theodore Sedgwick, a delegate to the Continental Congress and later speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and John Sedgwick, a revered Union general.

Putzi began playing the piano as a boy, taught by disciples of the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Sent to Harvard to prepare to manage the family’s art business in America, he became a friend of Theodore Roosevelt II, a fellow member of the class of 1909 and son of the president.

Putzi plunged into college life, rowing crew, singing falsetto soprano in the Hasty Pudding show, and mingling with such notables as poet T. S. Eliot and journalist Walter Lippmann. He often lunched at the Harvard Club in New York, where he met young Roosevelt’s cousin Franklin, the future president.

After graduation, Putzi spent a year in the kaiser’s army before returning to the States to run his father’s New York art shop, Galerie Hanfstaengl, off Fifth Avenue. He mixed with the city’s elite, married Helene Niemeyer, a German-American girl from Long Island, and fathered a son, Egon, named after one of his two older brothers.

World War I upset the grand life that Putzi had built. His brother Egon was killed in the war. Putzi’s pro-German views hurt his business and attracted the suspicions of authorities. A good lawyer—Elihu Root, Theodore Roosevelt’s one-time secretary of state—helped him avoid internment, but the government seized his gallery’s assets.

Returning to Germany in the summer of 1921, Hanfstaengl found a country ruined by inflation. The Weimar Republic that arose from the ashes of the war was splintered and threatened by right-wingers in the state of Bavaria who wanted to restore the country’s monarchy. The German people, Putzi said, were apathetic. “Germany was like a horse which ran up against a stone wall,” he later wrote in his memoirs, “not because it was blind but because it just didn’t give a damn.”

In late November 1922, U.S. Army captain Truman Smith, an acquaintance, approached Putzi for a favor. A military attaché at the U.S. embassy in Berlin, Smith had come to Munich to interview Hitler and assess the Nazi party. But the American had to return to Berlin before hearing Hitler speak at a beer hall rally. Could Putzi go and report back?

The chance assignment led to a major turn in Hanfstaengl’s life. When the pale, ill-dressed Hitler took the platform at the beer hall, Putzi was unimpressed; in his memoirs, he recalled thinking that Hitler looked like “a railroad restaurant waiter” or “a suburban hairdresser on his day off.” Then Hitler spoke, and Hanfstaengl was entranced. He likened the performance to that of a master conductor. His speech, said Putzi, built up to “an orgasm of words.” Afterward Hanfstaengl rushed up to talk to Hitler. This man, he told himself, could restore Germany to greatness. The two met again at another Hitler speech, and soon Germany’s budding leader was regularly dropping in on the Hanfstaengl family, sipping coffee and doting on little Egon. Putzi and Helene even asked him to be Egon’s godfather.

Within a year, Putzi felt confident enough to suggest to Hitler that he let his little black mustache grow wider. It was ugly, he bluntly told Hitler. But if the mustache wasn’t bold, Hitler was: “If it’s not the fashion now,” he replied, “it will be later, because I wear it.”

Meanwhile, Putzi became more involved in Nazi affairs. He used hard currency from his U.S. art business to underwrite the party’s newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, and to help finance the party as it grew.

On November 8, 1923, Hitler decided it was time to seize power. That evening, 3,000 people assembled in Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller, an upscale beer hall and gathering place, to hear key leaders of the Bavarian government. Hitler surrounded the hall with 600 of his stormtroopers and had a machine gun set up at the entrance to the auditorium. Leaping onto a table, he fired shots into the ceiling and shouted, “The national revolution has broken out!”

Hitler then made a fiery speech intended to spark an uprising and march on Berlin, just as Benito Mussolini had done to launch his victorious Fascist march on Rome the previous year. But when Hitler and thousands of followers pushed down a narrow street the next morning, a force of police and soldiers blocked their way. Both sides opened fire; 16 Nazis and 3 policemen were killed.

Putzi and other conspirators escaped to Austria. Hitler fled to Hanfstaengl’s country home, where Helene sheltered him. Putzi wrote later that Hitler tried to commit suicide, but Helene took away his pistol. Two days after the march, police found Hitler and charged him with treason. His weeks-long trial became an international event when the sympathetic judge let him rant for hours. He was given the minimum sentence of five years in prison.

According to Putzi, Hitler threatened to go on a hunger strike while in prison and was dissuaded only after talking with Helene. Putzi made one clandestine visit back to Germany, having “grown a set of Franz Josef mutton-chop whiskers” as a disguise. Eventually the treason charges against him were dropped.

Hitler was released from prison in 1924 after serving less than a year. His first night out, he went to Putzi’s house and asked him to play the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Hitler spent that Christmas with the Hanfstaengls, playing train on his hands and knees with Egon. Years later, Egon recalled how Hitler did “all the sound effects, of the train, switches, whistles, starting and stopping with steam,” and reenacted World War I, “with sound effects of various small arms, artillery, and bombs.”

Putzi claimed that, throughout their years of friendship, he tried to moderate Hitler’s extreme views and balance the influence of hardliners in his inner circle. He said he tried to tone down the appeals in Mein Kampf to political violence and anti-Semitism. Listening to Wagner, he found, tended to calm Hitler. “And when this put him in the right frame of mind I could often enter a caveat against some more outrageous piece of behavior on the part of his associates.”

During the next few years, others in Hitler’s orbit elbowed Putzi away. They disliked his cosmopolitan air, which they thought belied the party’s focus on the working class, and they saw him as a dilettante who was less than serious about the cause. Albert Speer, Hitler’s armaments minister, recalled how Putzi’s personal ties with Hitler became a “source of uneasiness”—particularly to the ruthless propagandist Josef Goebbels, whom Putzi later called “that little gnome.” Goebbels, according to Speer, “began casting aspersions on Hanfstaengl’s character, representing him as miserly, moneygrubbing, and of dubious honesty. He once brought in a phonograph record of an English song and attempted to prove that Hanfstaengl had stolen its melody for a popular march he had composed.”

Some called Putzi Hitler’s court jester. Hanfstaengl himself admitted that he often joked with Hitler “to get him into the sort of mood when I hoped he would see reason.” The biographer Konrad Heiden told how Putzi played “musical portraits.” Hitler, Heiden said, “nearly laughed himself to death when Hanfstaengl hammered out a portrait of the pompous and corpulent Göring, or played soft runs to portray [SS commander Heinrich] Himmler moving noiselessly across the carpet.”

While Hanfstaengl later cast himself as a voice of reason, he was glad to go along for the ride as Hitler bullied his way toward control of Germany. He officially joined the party, and sometimes wore a uniform of his own design. Becoming Hitler’s foreign press chief, he burnished the Nazis’ image internationally even as they destroyed books and persecuted Jews. He and Helene grew apart and divorced in 1936, and he spent more of his time on party affairs. If Hanfstaengl’s memoirs are to be believed, he even inspired the famous Nazi straight-arm salute. One day, he demonstrated Harvard cheers to Hitler, who cried, “Marvelous!” Soon the führer had Nazis at rallies chanting “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!” the way cheerleaders shouted “Rah! Rah! Rah!” at Harvard Stadium.

But Putzi’s friendship with foreign correspondents raised more doubts about his loyalty among Hitler’s inner circle. Goebbels, the Reich’s propaganda minister, was frustrated that Putzi reported only to Hitler. Eventually, Hitler’s henchmen decided something had to be done. In 1937, two days before Hanfstaengl’s 50th birthday, he received orders to fly to Spain to help German correspondents covering the Spanish Civil War. He was puzzled when he was issued a false passport, and once in the air, the pilot said he had orders to drop Putzi by parachute into territory controlled by the communists. Panicking, Hanfstaengl begged the pilot to return to Berlin. The pilot refused, but eventually landed at a little field in southeastern Germany. Putzi, convinced that Goebbels and the others were trying to eliminate him, fled to Switzerland and on to England.

Later, Hermann Göring sent word to Putzi that the episode had been a practical joke—apparently the work of Goebbels. Joke or not, Putzi did not return: He would no longer trust the men who had made lies and murder the political norm.

After war broke out in 1939, the British interned Hanfstaengl as an enemy alien, and later transferred him to Canada. A Hearst reporter encountered him in 1942 at a camp in Ontario and notified the White House that Hanfstaengl was eager to be useful to the Allied cause. Roosevelt was interested; he remembered Putzi from the Harvard Club years ago. He sent John Franklin Carter, a journalist who was secretly running an intelligence unit for the president, to fetch him.

British authorities had misgivings about turning Hanfstaengl over to the Americans. Their sources indicated that during his years in London, Hanfstaengl had tried to negotiate a return to his homeland. One British official warned Carter that Putzi “remained Nazi in his sympathies” and was “an adventurer, untrustworthy and a liar…vain, conceited and rather irresponsible….I think we all agree about the danger of confusing anybody’s mind at this time into the belief that there are good and bad Nazis!”

Nonetheless, Washington wanted Putzi. His life as a turncoat intelligence asset began in June 1942, when he arrived in the nation’s capital, identified only as “Dr. Sedgwick.” Carter secured him at Fort Belvoir, in the Virginia suburbs, where he shortly gave officers a shock. Talking with the base commander, Hanfstaengl strode over to a map on the general’s wall. Reaching toward the coast of North Africa, he pointed directly at Casablanca and said: “There is only one place for you to start the invasion of Europe, and that is here.” Putzi did not know it, but that was where the Allies were planning to launch the Operation Torch invasion. The general shuddered; fearing that the plan had gotten out, he ordered Putzi’s quarters tightly secured.

According to Carter, the British suspected that Hanfstaengl was homosexual, which was viewed in those days as a liability in intelligence work. To test him, Carter enlisted Gerald Haxton, the longtime companion of novelist Somerset Maugham. Like Maugham, Haxton was busily multisexual; Maugham’s wife once said of Haxton: “If he thought it would be of the faintest advantage, he’d jump into bed with a hyena.”

Haxton moved in with Putzi, but the experiment lasted only one day. Hanfstaengl exploded: “I wish you’d get rid of this man! One of the things I couldn’t stand about Hitler was all the fairies he had around him!”

Hanfstaengl was furnished with a shortwave radio and began turning out daily intelligence memos, interpreting the nuances of Goebbel’s propaganda from Berlin. He wrote the reports in longhand, and they were delivered to the Office of Strategic Services, where they were typed and copied. The first copy was for the White House, addressed to FDR’s secretary, Grace Tully.

The British wrote off Hanfstaengl’s reports as useless, but the Americans valued his insights into how the German people might be persuaded to rise up against Hitler. Roosevelt, a big proponent of psychological warfare, more than once sent word that he wanted Putzi’s opinion—on changes in Germany’s high command, say, or how to convince German people that they would not be massacred following an Allied victory.

But Putzi in his isolation at Belvoir was soon stirring up trouble with complaints about his guards and security. Henry Field, an anthropologist in Carter’s intelligence unit assigned to watch over Hanfstaengl, moved his charge to a nearby plantation called Bush Hill, where he was set up in a once grand home with a civilian guard, a first-class ration card, a small library, and a live-in couple—a painter and his wife, a fine cook.

Each day at Bush Hill, Putzi listened to foreign broadcasts pulled in by a huge Hallicrafters radio antenna. He took detailed notes, identifying weaknesses in German propaganda and suggesting how to use them against the Germans. Field urged him to include ideas for embarrassing questions—such as “Whatever happened to the pornographic drawings made by Hitler?”—to be broadcast to Germany by Allied shortwave stations.

Whenever a Hitler speech was broadcast, Putzi listened for hints about his mental and physical condition. The OSS rushed transcripts to Bush Hill, and Hanfstaengl dispatched his analyses by motorcycle messenger to Field’s house in Georgetown.

Bored by this routine, Putzi welcomed Carter’s suggestion that he write detailed psychological profiles of Hitler and those around him. Roosevelt was fascinated by the resulting 68-page study of the dictator’s habits and peculiarities, calling it “Hitler’s Bedtime Stories.” Hanfstaengl wrote what he knew—and surmised—about the führer’s mother fixation, his skimpy education, his physical courage, his vegetarianism, his admiration for Mussolini’s speechmaking, and his identification with Frederick the Great and Napoleon. He dwelt on Hitler’s “untenable and even desperate” sexual situation, calling him “impotent” and an “egocentric and masturbic Narcissus.”

His profiles of 400 Nazi leaders made for equally good reading. Himmler, he said, was “immature, enveloped, and insensitive, blighted by the Great War and its aftermath.” Goebbels, he predicted, would abandon the cause.

Carter and his colleagues also found a way to make use of Hanfstaengl in an imaginative bit of psychological warfare. Putzi had told Carter of Hitler’s fondness for Wagner; Tristan, he said, “acts as a dope to him.” With this in mind, Carter brought Putzi to his Washington home one night for a dinner party. After the meal and wine, he was invited to play for the group on a Steinway grand piano. Putzi opened with a few light numbers, then segued into his Wagner repertoire, as if performing for Hitler. As he played, he began speaking in German, begging Hitler to end the war, to stop the destruction of their fatherland. His performance was taped for broadcast to Europe, and records of it were parachuted into Germany, rattling Berlin. Himmler issued orders for citizens to destroy the records at once, unopened.

Hanfstaengl’s output slumped as the war dragged on. He was morose, concerned about Egon. His American-born son, once a member of the Hitler Youth, had enrolled at Harvard before the war and was now a sergeant in the U.S. Army, serving in New Guinea. Putzi’s spirits lifted when Egon was assigned temporary duty as his guard and secretary at Bush Hill. Egon had come to despise Hitler, his childhood playmate, and he devised a plan to assassinate him. Equipped with false documents, he could sneak into Germany from Switzerland and talk his way into Hitler’s Berchtesgaden compound carrying a message from his father. “If I can get close enough to shake his hand, I can kill him,” Egon said. FDR, however, firmly vetoed the idea because he did not believe in targeting an enemy head of state. Egon returned to duty in the Pacific, but not before telling the Army Air Forces what he knew about the defenses of Berchtesgaden.

Inevitably, thanks to the buzzing gossip at offices and cocktail gatherings of wartime Washington and London, reporters heard that a former Nazi insider was feeding intelligence about Hitler to the president. In January 1943, the New York Times published a brief story saying that Hanfstaengl “has been giving our government information about Hitlerism for several months.” Such reports sparked questions in Canada’s House of Commons and private protests from the British government, which had agreed to let Putzi come to the United States only with assurance of secrecy. Pressure from London grew. Since Egon’s departure, Hanfstaengl’s production had again dwindled. Finally, in the summer of 1944, his handlers gave in to British demands and flew him back to be interned in England.

It is hard to know whether Putzi made a whit of difference in the outcome of World War II. Some of the journalists who dealt with him as Hitler’s foreign press chief sneered at him as a lightweight: William L. Shirer of the Chicago Tribune and later CBS News thought it “ludicrous” to imagine that his advice would be taken seriously. Quentin Reynolds of Collier’s magazine thought it distressing that Putzi “had been able to fool high-ranking defense officials into believing that his advice on anything but Liszt, 19th-century painting, or the wines of the Rhineland would be worth considering.”

But Roosevelt and the other consumers of Hanfstaengl’s reports got what they sought—insight into Hitler and his top lieutenants. One of the first principles of warfare, as laid down by Sun Tzu, is “know thine enemy.” Roosevelt was inundated by decoded telegrams and statistical reports, but what he craved was gossipy, personal intelligence. The president spent hours reading Putzi’s psychological portrait of America’s mortal adversary and his profiles of Nazi leaders. “It seems clear that FDR did value Hanfstaengl’s insight on two topics: the stresses and strains within the Nazi movement and Hitler’s personal character,” writes British historian Steven Casey.

Whether the president or the Allies considered Hanfstaengl’s analyses in any major decision is not clear. But Putzi was a unique weapon in the unceasing propaganda wars between the Allies and the Axis. Hanfstaengl, Carter later said, “was a guide to what might have been done to win the German people away from Hitler.”

Interned in England, Putzi complained about his treatment, which was far less luxurious than his arrangement in the United States. After peace came, he asked for a visa to return to America, but President Harry Truman’s State Department turned him down. When plans emerged to ship him to Germany, he went on a week’s hunger strike in protest; in New York, Egon held a press conference to say that his father’s life would be in danger if he had to go back. Nevertheless, Putzi was repatriated, freed from internment, and returned to Munich in September 1946. Three years later, an Allied denazification court cleared him of all charges of complicity in Hitler’s rise to power.

Over the next few years, as Germany recovered from the war, Hanfstaengl’s art business flourished again, and he rebuilt his life. In 1974, he made plans to go back to Harvard for the 65th reunion of his class. He had attended his 25th reunion in 1934 while still a prominent Nazi official, and his presence touched off such strong protests that police had to be called in. His arrival this time, however, made few ripples. In an interview with a Boston reporter, he described his life as “an enigmatic, grim, Gilbert and Sullivan farce.” The next year, diagnosed with thyroid cancer, Hanfstaengl died at 88.


Originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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